by Kenneth Rudich (author’s note: this is the “promote a social good” campaign submission for this week)
If you’re among the rapidly growing number of adults with an ambition to pursue higher education, or part of the 88 million strong baby boom echo (the children of the baby boomers) that has been, and will continue to be, coming of college age between 2000 and 2015, then there’s a good chance you’re either in the midst of, or about to be introduced to, the controversial issue of access in U.S. higher education.
access: the ability to attend college
The National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education defines “access” as the ability to attend college. Expressed this way, it is, without doubt, an admirable concept, one made all the better by being adorned with the attribute of elegant simplicity.
But simple concepts often have a way of withering under closer examination, and this one is no exception.
Take, for instance, the word “ability,” which itself is open-ended. Are they talking about financial ability, physical ability, technical ability, mental ability? Who should be responsible for facilitating ability — the government, the education system, the students, the private sector, parents, taxpayers?
Should ability include an entitlement to attend the college or university of choice? Or guarantee a spot in a selected field of study? And are there wider world implications — social, political, economic, environmental, technological — that come with providing (or failing to provide) ability?
When put to the test, even an apparently simple matter like access can be stubbornly difficult to reconcile. The reason, explains Carol Twigg from The National Center for Academic Transformation, is because “access means different things to different people.”
another defining moment for access in the u.s.
Dating back to 1862, the U.S. has struggled mightily with the issue of providing its citizens with access to higher education, and it now finds itself poised at another defining moment in that history.
So far, the quest for universal access has been something of a bittersweet story — that is, it has been accomplished, but only to a limited extent. Robert Craves, President and CEO of the National Education Foundation, sums it up this way: “We’re doing a great job of educating the affluent kids…We’re doing a poor job of educating the poor kids.”
From the start, the hope for access was to give first-generation college students from middle and low-income families the opportunity to participate in higher education.
Moreover, such a notion has recently become more important than ever, given what we know about the changing U.S. population. “In 1960, for example, about 7 percent of U.S. High School graduates were members of minority groups,” says Thomas G. Mortenson, Senior Scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, “by 2012, about 40 percent will be.”
But the untidy business of rising higher education costs, alongside growing government deficits at both state and federal levels, is threatening to adversely affect the amount of financial aid made available for sustaining access, let alone improving it.
In addition, The Institute of Higher Education has identified numerous other problems that put access at risk, including:
- social and cultural barriers to access, including academically qualified students who are insufficiently informed about the benefits of higher education;
- inadequate K-12 preparation or not academically qualified;
- academically qualified but lack the ability to pay for higher education;
- how can student loan programs be effectively used to overcome financial barriers to access;
- how does tax policy impact access for better or worse;
- projections that higher education will lack sufficient capacity to meet demand;
- why does college cost as much as it does, especially in the eyes of parents and families;
- are colleges and universities being held appropriately accountable for the quality of their activities;
- what is the scope of federal regulatory burden on colleges and universities.
why does it matter anyway?
The baleful consequence of failing to do better has the potential for putting the U.S. in a terrible bind.
In his 1964 book, “Human Capital,” economist Gary Becker defended the economic value of higher education by showing that an investment in people was akin to an investment in physical capital, and it could be measured in much the same way. He devised a method to compute an economic rate of return from it, from both a private good and public good standpoint. “The result,” says University of Virginia economist David W. Breneman “was a powerful analytical model that provided hard economic evidence of the value of higher education in the labor market.”
Other economists have since reaffirmed the legitimacy of Becker’s work, which makes it possible to gauge the nation’s capacity to meet its future workforce needs. On this subject, a report released by The Institute for Higher Education Policy is unavoidably somber and ineluctably clear: “If current trends continue, the nation will face a deficit of approximately 12 million workers with at least some college education by 2020.”
Dennis P. Jones of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems claims, “Anything that limits access, even indirectly, becomes cause for concern and attention.” Apart from undercutting a much-cherished ideal – “The ideal of transforming higher education from the preserve of the elite and affluent to a resource for many,” says Jones — it also impedes the development of human capital, which may well be the single most important asset a state, region or nation can have in the midst of these trying times.
With workforce needs growing ever more complex in this era of the knowledge age, the notion of increasing access to higher education in the U.S. is at a crossroads once again, and the concept of time – or rather, the passage of it — cannot necessarily be counted upon as an ally in that quest.